"Raise Hell! Raise Hell!" came the repeated shouts of the assembled delegates in response to speeches calling for class action.
"There is a class struggle", stated Buzz Hargrove, to the roaring approval of the whole Labour Party convention in Pittsburgh. Hargrove, Canadian Auto Workers President, was giving fraternal greetings on behalf of his union that brought delegates to their feet. "We are part of that struggle. We can make a difference", he said.
With the convention hall surrounded by murals of working class heroes from Mother Jones to John L. Lewis, Hargrove hammered home the attack against international capital. "Capital yields nothing without a struggle", he said. "But they take, take, take. They need to be pushed back.. We need to build an alternative, and join in solidarity with workers everywhere.. We have to put an end to casino capitalism." Which pretty well summed up the mood of this Labour Party convention.
The US Labour Party was established just over two years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. But this Pittsburgh convention was deemed the First Constitutional Convention, with more-or-less its constitution and structures in place. Over the past two years, this fledgling party has made modest progress in building up its membership, which currently stands at more than 10,000. Greater progress has been achieved, despite a cool response from the leadership of the AFL/CIO, in attracting affiliation and endorsement from union bodies. At present, affiliates and endorsers represent over one million workers.
The 1,414 delegates present from chapters and unions from 46 States were composed of miners, dockers, textile workers, nurses, power workers, electricians, farm workers, civil servants, construction workers and many others. It was a solid workers' gathering. As we wrote two years ago, this venture represents the most serious attempt in 50 years to establish a party of Labour in the United States.
The Mineworkers' leader Cecil Roberts delivered a speech, in his distinctive Virginian accent, attacking the conditions facing working people in America today. "There are 80% of US workers that make less than they did in 1980. Forty million live in poverty. 33% of US children have no health cover. Twenty percent of American children live in poverty", he said. "And yet the press is obsessed with sex. The Labour Party wants to change the debate." He pointedly concluded to rapturous applause: "It's time to say no, no, no, hell no!"
Electoral strategy debate
One of the key debates at the convention was over electoral strategy. Two years ago the party decided not to stand candidates, but would review the situation at this gathering. An Electoral Commission was established which put forward proposals for a cautious entry into the electoral field. The report stressed "We stand independent of the corporations and their political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties. Our overall strategy is for the majority of American people - working class people - to take political power." It concluded, "Within this framework of class independence, with the ultimate goal of achieving power, we accept the electoral tactic of running candidates."
A key part was: "The Labour Party will support only candidates for office who are Labour Party members running solely as Labour Party candidates. The Labour Party will not endorse any other candidates." This served to allay fears that the party would be simply used to exert pressure on the Democrats, and not fight independently for the interests of the working class.
The key concern of the leadership was of running credible campaigns to win public office. "We don't want to be one-percenters", stated Tony Mazzocchi. The Commission therefore put forward a whole series of tough criteria for running candidates: the necessary resources, both financial and organisational, with sufficient backing from unions and community organisations. Ultimately, a national committee of the party would decide whether or not to proceed. Opposition to the leadership's proposals came from those who saw the criteria as imposing too tight a grip over the democracy of the Chapters and State Parties.
In a very heated debate, many referred to the potential for the party now on he electoral front. A week previous, the mid-term elections saw a voter turn-out of only 37 %, a 50 year low, which reflects disillusionment with the current two party system. While the stunning victory of Jesse 'The Body' Ventura in Minnesota against two established Democrat and Republican, revealed the potential for a third party. "If we don't fill in the political gap, someone else is going to," said Jan Campbell, director of the Rhode Island Labour Party. "Our health care campaign is great, but our members want us to run candidates."
Other delegates warned that the party would require several more years to build its base. Their fear was that the party would damage itself if it ran candidates prematurely, and it could risk destroying the party if it flopped miserably before it had time to consolidate its base. In the end, this more cautious approach carried the day. In all likelihood, the party would pick and choose its best options and would be unlikely to enter the electoral field on any significant scale for at least another few years.
Some then argued for "fusion" politics, which would allow the party to cross-endorse non-Labour candidates. Such a policy would open the door to deals with Democrats and fly in the face of independent class politics. But, again, this was heavily defeated in a voice vote. So, after a sharp, but comradely debate, which mirrored the controversy at the founding convention, the Electoral Commission's proposals overwhelmingly won the day.
Workers rights campaign
The party has set out to win the hearts and minds of working people. Today's workers want unions. According to recent opinion polls, almost half of working Americans - over 50 million - would join a union if they had a chance. However, those who try to organise now face a war in the workplace. One in ten union activists are fired for promoting a union - up from an estimated one in twenty in 1980. As a result of this environment of fear, attempts to organise have curtailed. In 1997, workers participated in only 3,160 National Labour Relations Board-supervised elections, down from 7,021 in 1980.
Consequently, the convention went on to endorse a campaign on Workers' Rights. The resolution was introduced by United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. Roberts recalled some of the militant battles the members of his union have been through to defend their rights as workers. "We know the answer to workers' problems in the US is a stronger labour movement in this country where people have a legal right to speak out, to defend themselves, to health and safety," he said.
The resolution pointed out:
- "At work, we are guilty unless proven innocent.
- "At work, we obey orders upon penalty of discipline.
- "At work, our most fundamental right, that of free speech, does not apply.
- "At work, we have to QUALIFY for rights by taking extraordinary and illogical legal efforts to gain recognition and to bargain for fundamental job rights."
On the other hand, "the corporations are assumed to possess civil rights, do not have to gain such rights, and consequently have more rights under the law than do people, including their 'right' to free speech, to hold captive meetings of their employees, and express political opinions."
In this period of anti-labour actions on the part of the corporations, it was felt overwhelmingly that the party should take up this struggle. A resolution was passed pledging full support to the migrant farmworkers of Mt. Olive Pickle Co., who are battling with the owners over union recognition. The convention agreed to support a boycott their products until such time as the company agrees a contract. In the Solidarity Hour, strikers and locked-out workers across the United States told their stories of ruthless bosses. The convention heard deeply moving speeches from locked-out Detroit newspaper workers, locked-out steelworkers from Colorado, striking mineworkers from Illinois, and strikers from the biscuit manufacturer Nabisco. It was an emotional time. These workers, who are at the sharp end of Corporate America, received a rapturous welcome from all delegates at the convention, who dug deep into their pockets in the financial collection as a symbol of solidarity.
Another key issue that was debated at the convention was health care. "Almost everyone has their own horror story to tell about our current healthcare system," said Labour Party organiser Ed Bruno. "Over 43 million people in this country have no health insurance at all, and the rest of us are fed up with the deductibles, co-pays and inadequate coverage. The healthcare system should be about patient care, not profit."
The convention decided to launch a Just Healthcare campaign, and to kick it off organised an impromptu march and rally through Pittsburgh. The convention was suspended at hundreds of chanting delegates streamed on to the streets carrying placards, union flags and a 12-foot high replica of the Statue of Liberty. The crowd was then addressed by leading figures in health, including Dr Sidney Wolfe of the Health Research Group, California Nurse Association President Kit Costello, and Katherine Connors, president of Canada's National Federation of Nursing Unions.
"The USA is sick", said Kit Costello, to the loud applause of the rally. "One hundred million under-insured or no insurance. While the corporations pick our pockets for higher health insurance premiums. We have the facts of human wreckage under our corporate healthcare. We need cradle to grave health security, and we intend to put just health care back on the political radar screen."
The convention got back to business. After hearing the left-wing writer and film maker, Michael Moore, who lampooned the two-party system, the "republicrats", it was the turn of consumer rights activist Ralph Nader. Nader attacked the huge divide in American society. "Today, Bill Gates has more wealth than 115 Americans", he said. "The case for a Labour Party is overwhelming, but would require hard effort for it to set down real roots."
This theme was taken up repeatedly: the need to put shoulders to the grind stone and build the membership of the party. The party was determined to move beyond "politics as usual" and bring millions of ordinary people into the fight for a new political agenda. The party is aiming for a mass membership. One resolution that was passed stated: "We must demand of ourselves that an annual doubling of our membership is the minimum acceptable increase, in addition to recruiting which results from campaigns, work inside unions, and other mass recruitment programmes."
Effects of the coming recession
Although this is a tall order, the political climate in the United States has become more favourable to the development of a Labour Party. Although still very small, the party has enormous potential for growth. This is particularly the case with the developing world recession and the dramatic impact this will have on the USA. A deep slump - which is on the cards - would have far reaching political consequences. Those who talk about a new recovery and prosperity - and there are many publications and books proclaiming this perspective - are simply pipe-dreaming. Even the recent rallies and gyrations on Wall Street are not a symptom of well-being, but are the tremors of an impending crash.
Although a deep slump will tend to dampen down movements on the industrial front, at least for a period, politically America will face an enormous radicalisation. With the inevitable crisis in the Republicans and Democrats, who rest on the "market", this can find its expression in the Labour Party. Whether this present Labour Party will become the mass party of the American working class is an open question. It certainly has the potential. A key criteria for this is the attitude of the AFL/CIO, which will become the backbone of any mass workers' party.
At present, the AFL/CIO leadership have remained wedded to the Democratic Party, as the TUC in the last century was allied to the Liberals in Britain. The right-wing leadership under Kirkland was hand in glove with the Democrats. They crushed all opposition to independent class politics. The present John J. Sweeney leadership has been much more tolerant. They have turned a blind eye towards union affiliates who have endorsed the Labour Party. Compared to Kirkland this is a step forward. However, Sweeney has questioned the timing of the effort, saying labour's limited resources could be best used to rebuild the union movement and elect pro-worker (Democratic) candidates. The AFL/CIO pumped in $20 million into the last presidential election. In the recent November elections they worked hard to pull the Democratic Party leftward by campaigning for hundreds of Democrats.
But that strategy has failed for 50 years. The Clinton Administration, rather than being pro-worker, has pushed through a free trade agreement that hurt workers, welfare reform that shredded the safety net, and implemented pro-big business policies at home and abroad. In reality, it is no different from the Republicans. "Neither the Democrats or Republicans have passed any pro-worker legislation in 25 years," says Mazzocchi. "On issues that working Americans care about, on trade, health care, welfare reform, the two major parties have sided with the corporations." How else could it be? They both represent the interests of American capitalism.
That is why the Labour Party slogan: "The Bosses Have Two Parties. Now We Have One of Our Own" is correct. There must be not mixing of banners. Class independence is an absolute necessity.
At a certain stage, the AFL/CIO will be forced, under pressure from below, to break with the Democratic Party. Those on the left who write off the US Labour Party already are making a profound mistake. The Labour Party could become the catalyst for a new mass party based upon the trade unions. Similarly, it could play the same role as the British Independent Labour Party in the last decade of the 19th century. Its activities and propaganda laid the basis for the founding of the British Labour Party in 1900. It was the ILP, together with the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and the trade unions which came together to establish the party. That is a possible variant, which events will confirm or otherwise.
What is certain is that this present Labour Party is the most serious attempt since the second world war to found a real party of labour in the USA. Huge events will turn the present political climate on its head. Very rapidly, the American working class will draw revolutionary conclusions. A mass workers' party will move sharply to the left to embrace the ideas and programme of socialism.
The Marxist tendency in the United States around the magazine 'Socialist Labor' will gather around it the most militant and class-conscious sections and play a crucial role in this process. Genuine Marxism will find a mass basis in the USA in the convulsive period that is opening up, and will provide the clarity and theory that will serve to arm the leadership of the working class for the conquest of power.
American capitalism is a colossus with feet of clay. The working class in the United States is potentially the most powerful in the world. With clear programme, tactics and strategy they can come to power peacefully, putting an end to the rule of the corporations, and founding a democratic Socialist America.